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When my husband asks me to go to Costco, I feel like I’m being punished for doing something terrible. Not terrible as in I shrunk his favorite shirt in the washer. Terrible as in, “Wench, you burnt my chest hair with a blowtorch! Now, get ye to Costco!”

I was hellbent against joining the place, despite several of our friends’ insistence that Costco is “The Happiest Place on Earth” (which is actually Disneyland, but I’ve never had the heart to tell them). Jake talked me into it, but even walking in to get our membership cards, I remember thinking, “Oh, so this is what evil looks like.”

See, there’s this famous story in my family about my mom at Christmas time at Meijer, a superstore in my hometown. She was overstimulated by the lights and the crowds and she couldn’t find my dad, so they had to call his name over the loudspeaker: “Dave Dobie, paging Dave Dobie; please come collect your crazy wife in produce.”

The lesson learned? Stay away from superstores, especially if, like me, you suffer from an anxiety disorder.

Costco wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for EVERYTHING ABOUT IT. I headed there today, post-workout, so I felt all limber and jovial until I reached obstacle one: The Parking Lot of Death. I don’t know if my fellow consumers are literally trying to kill me or if their cell phones are so far up their asses that they’re uncomfortable and can’t reach the brakes because they’re too busy screaming, “Please, get this cell phone out of my ass.”

Then, in order to enter the members-only champagne room (there isn’t really champagne; there should be champagne), you have to show your members-only card, which I’m sure makes other people feel really special but just makes me feel like I’m about to enter Auschwitz.

You have to get a cart, because everything at Costco is in bulk, because Jake and I obviously require 30 ROLLS OF TOILET PAPER AT ALL TIMES. The shoppers at Costco move like sea turtles following city lights. They’re slow, vacant, and probably, someday, a huge bird will swoop down and bite their heads off. (I bet Costco owns huge birds! They probably stock the huge palates of 30-roll TP!) It’s impossible to be efficient, because everyone moves around the floor-to-ceiling aisles, mystified by the free food samples that probably cause cancer.

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Now, picture me: medium height, skinny, post-workout bandana, haunted look, and sallow cheeks. Picture me curling into a smaller and smaller ball on the top of my cart. I chew my lips. I stutter-step and try to breathe, but they apparently suck all the air out of Costco, and I CAN’T BREATHE! I have to hurry because if I don’t hurry I’ll die of asphyxiation, but I can’t hurry because the lady in size 20 jeans in front of me won’t decide if she wants fifty or one hundred pounds worth of hot dogs.

If you’re lucky enough to make it to the register, everything is almost all right. You pay, you smile, you run like hell for the door with all your toilet paper, but then, you have to pass the exit test where nice-looking ladies (who are probably vengeful dragons) check your tab and make sure you aren’t stealing anything. And then to The Parking Lot of Death!

By the time I’m back in my driver’s seat, my head is spinning and I’m thinking, “Why don’t I keep bourbon in my purse? I should totally keep bourbon in my purse.”

Costco is like hell with fluorescent lights and the smell of microwaveable food where the majority of its inhabitants are chubby and slow-moving. Maybe, just maybe, some of the customers never leave. They circle the aisles on auto-pilot. They forget their families, their names. They stay forever. They become Costco employees.

Funky Tee / Flickr

Funky Tee / Flickr

If there’s one thing most writers agree on, it’s that comedy is hard. As I enjoy being contrary, I disagree. I think comedy is easy, if only you look to the greats and map out their devices. You’ll find most great comic writers use similar tools. I took recent cues from David Sedaris (Me Talk Pretty One Day) and Jenny Lawson (Let’s Pretend This Never Happened). In order to extrapolate what makes each of them “funny,” let’s take a look at the repeated techniques recognized in the works of each.

1. There’s a fine line between two much and just enough, but if you can walk that line, you’ve struck comic gold. Sedaris is a perfect example of this as he goes from totally over the top disgusting to (as Goldilocks would say) just right. For example, when describing his childhood language coach, he claims in her free time she “… devoted herself to yanking healthy molars or performing unwanted clitoridectomies on the schoolgirls of Africa.” Out in space? Most certainly. Then, he brings us back to Earth: “When asked what we wanted to be when we grew up, we hid the truth and listed who we wanted to sleep with when we grew up” and goes on to list manly men like policemen and firemen. This balances too much with something utterly relatable, which keeps his comedy from being grotesque parody and instead makes the shocking lines all the more funny because they stick out. It’s sort of like me saying “sad as a quadriplegic looking at monkey bars” and then pulling back to reiterate “or like an ex-smoker walking into Rick’s Café Americain and taking a seat next to Humphrey Bogart.”

2. Personal embarrassment is an immediate way to connect with the reader. Sedaris, of course, is the king of poking fun at himself. Despite his sometimes-derogatory study of others, he is cruelest to himself: “The only crimp in my plan was that I seemed to have no talent whatsoever.” This works, because if all Sedaris did was make fun of other people, the reader would tire of his judgments and Sedaris would lose his credibility. Jenny Lawson is the queen of self-degradation. Between segments of endless fun poked at her taxidermist father, she makes her own psychological illnesses into jokes. First, we are introduced to her hypochondria: “Sometime during the night I had been struck down with a case of lethal finger cancer.” Later, she dedicates an entire chapter to her anxiety disorder. She’s not afraid to embarrass herself, and again, this makes her laughable because she is not afraid to laugh at herself, just like the time I was really nervous at an art showing and told a group of men I barely knew I looked tired because “my husband and I just had sex in our kitchen, but don’t worry: I showered after.”

3. Perhaps my favorite tool is the art of exaggeration. This is a sneaky technique, one that creeps up on you. You’re reading along, enjoying the realistic ride of non-fiction essay, when all of a sudden, boom, Sedaris: “My fingernails had grown a good three inches by the time he struck his final note.” Lawson uses the tool on several different occasions. First, she writes her book might be too much for some readers, so she suggests, calmly, “getting another book that’s less disturbing than this one. Like one about kittens. Or genocide.” Exaggeration takes comedy and then takes it a step further … and further. It’s sort of like if I was to tell you I never open mysterious boxes delivered to my front door until I first check for any sign of Brad Pitt, Kevin Spacey, and/or Gwenyth Paltrow in my backyard without a head. Dead giveaway. I also pause March of the Penguins, which I listen to on repeat just so I can pretend Morgan Freeman is narrating my life.

4. Strong openings: they catch the reader off guard, set up the rest of the story, and often get a good chortle because who knew comedy could just jump on you like that? Having a strong comedic opening is like slapping your reader in the face with a funny club. Sedaris starts his essay “Big Boy” with a cheerful description of an Easter Sunday until he heads to the bathroom where he discovers “the absolute biggest turd I have ever seen in my life—no toilet paper or anything, just this long and coiled specimen, as thick as a burrito.” Lawson uses a similar technique with “I always assumed that the day I got engaged I’d be naked, covered in rose petals, and sleeping with the brother of the man who’d kidnapped me. And also he’d be a duke. And possibly my stepbrother.” Again, she uses a number of comic devices: strong opening and exaggeration (maybe; you never know if Lawson is actually exaggerating). Strong openings are crucial in all writing, but with comedy, getting a reader to laugh at line one is priceless. In fact, I probably should have opened this paragraph with “Holy shit, I just tripped over a three-legged dog.”

Okay, so maybe comedy isn’t that easy, but upon close study, it’s easy to identify techniques used by comic masters. When striving to amuse your reader, it’s important to walk the line between appropriate and could-land-you-in-prison. An author must learn to laugh at him or herself in order to be given full allowance to laugh at others. Exaggeration is your friend. Finally, open strong and stay strong. Now that the techniques have been recognized, the hard part will be adding such jewels into my own work. In this world filled with people who take themselves too seriously, being a comic is just as important as being a garbage man, doctor, or swanky salesman at a marijuana dispensary. Now, if I could only figure out where this three-legged dog in my living room came from.

(And hey, if you want some of my fictional comedy, read the first two chapters of Bite Somebody on Wattpad. Cheers.)

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In the past week, my grandmother died, a friend of mine tried to commit suicide, I haven’t been sleeping, and eating is something forced upon me by my lovely husband. My neighbors already have Christmas decorations up, and radio stations are playing “Silver Bells” seemingly on repeat. I haven’t … no, I can’t write fiction. I’ve tried. I’m constantly on the verge of complete panic, and I’m beyond crying, the necessary water and salt expunged each night during my cold sweats. What does this mean?

I’m obviously going quite mad.

Madness is when even watching Doctor Who doesn’t make me happy. Madness is watching The IT Crowd on repeat. Madness is caring about nothing, not my work, not my housecleaning, not makeup or clean clothes. Madness is the inability to write and anger at books as a whole because books … I don’t even know! Books are even making me mad. MAD-NESS.

So what do we do, folks, what do we do?

Step 1: Admit you have a problem.
Step 2: Turn off the TV.
Step 3: Brush your teeth.
Step 4: That’s as far as I’ve gotten.

I feel like there are tiny gremlins in my stomach. They’re clawing to get out. I can see them: little green critters with fangs and wings who will eventually break free and go flitting about my house, their flapping wings casting blood spatter all over our rental property and everyone knows: blood is impossible to get out!

My dogs seem to sense something, because whenever I sit down, they sit on top of me, and my dogs each weigh about sixty pounds. They curl into little balls on my lap and lick my face, perhaps using doggie powers to exorcise the madness? They’re too close, suffocating if they weren’t so cute.

Jake, poor Jake, just holds me and makes sure I eat and tells me he loves me, he loves me, he loves me. I imagine, to him, my state of bonkers looks sort of like that scene in Pulp Fiction (“You shot Marvin in the face!”) which leaves my poor husband wondering how he’s going to get all the brain matter out of the upholstery.

Crazy. Looped. Nutso. Think Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction.

If I look closely at the past week, I realize I have a pass. I can understand that a little madness is totally acceptable, especially since I don’t think I’ve even grieved the loss of my grandmother yet, so busy am I trying to keep my brain inside my skull. Grieving will come, when I’m back home, back in Ohio for the funeral in December. Until then, I’ve got to find a way to keep myself together and keep my jobs, because I LOVE MY WORK so why the hell have I been sucking so badly?

Says the Cheshire Cat: “We’re all mad here.” I should get a sign that says that to hang on my front door, some kind of warning for the wayward traveler like words on old sea maps: “There be monsters.”

Fact is I’m losing my damn mind (and/or it was lost a long time ago, depending on who you ask). This is the worst time of year to do so, with Thanksgiving and then the commercial explosion of Christmas. Even sane people go crazy this time of year. You gotta start December with your shit together! So what do we do, folks? WHAT DO WE DO?

Step 1: Admit you have a problem.
Step 2: Turn off the TV.
Step 3: Brush your teeth.
Step 4: Step out of the woods and desperately try to retrace your steps back to the path your life was on before this week so you don’t become the unwashed, stinky girl on the corner screaming about how the end is near while waving rubber chickens.

Grandma Goes Home

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What do you do the morning after you lose someone you love? Even if that death was for the best, following months (years) of illness, suffering, and grief? We lost Grandma Schwind last night: the last remaining grandparent in my family, the matriarch. She left us at 7 PM. She navigated her way past the pain, the hospital bed, and all the other old, sick, and suffering at her nursing home to see Heaven and Papa and her beloved son, lost much too soon, Barney. Last night, Grandma went home.

It’s a relief really. Ten minutes prior to The Call from Ohio, I was having trouble eating. I was telling my husband how the wait was killing me. My chest ached with tears that would not fall, not until I felt Grandma’s absence. I’d been holding onto phantom pain for two days, ever since Grandma’s breathing changed, ever since she stopped eating. I hadn’t cried. The tears wouldn’t come. The saltwater simmered in my chest but would not boil, not until my mom called sobbing at 7 PM to say, “She’s gone.”

With those two words, tears came in earnest—sobs that shook my body as Jake held me until even the dogs came and wrapped us in their tail-wagging embrace. Jake said, “Some dogs can smell cancer. What makes you think they can’t smell when you’re upset?”

0011Leonilda Schwind was once a Macy’s sales clerk in New York City. Of Italian descent, she had that wicked foreign appeal; plus, she was gorgeous. I think my grandfather fell for her immediately when they met at that picnic in Central Park. They were married for sixty-six years before Papa died last October. They had four children, three grandchildren, and lots of great-grand dogs.

By the time Papa passed, he was one of the last of his friends still standing. Same with Grandma, and if the clouds rumble today, it’s because there is a huge party happening right now, above our heads. You might hear Frank Sinatra on a chilly breeze or maybe smell gin.

I don’t feel sad this morning. I’m sure, over the course of the day, there will be bouts of stark reality—the reality of death. It’s difficult, living so far away, when someone you love dies. It’s easy to pretend it isn’t real. A few months ago, even, there was a moment when I was on the phone with my mother, and I almost asked her to put Papa on the phone. I didn’t say the words, thank God; I hung up and stood there, shaking. And even years after my Uncle Barney’s death, I still have those moments when I think, “Oh, my GOD, he has to hear this …”

I know death is real. I know Grandma has gone home to her Lord, her family, her friends. I mourn the loss of the stubborn, funny, beautiful woman she was, not the bedridden sick person she became. There are so many memories, so many stories (too many to tell here). It’s a relief to know Grandma isn’t sick anymore. She’s probably in Heaven, her twenty-five-year-old New York self, glitzed up in the latest fashion (I picture a big hat) with her curly, black hair; big, shining eyes; and a smile that could light up all of Times Square. Papa is there, too, in his sailor uniform, his ears a little too big for his head. And Barney: thin and smoking cigarettes and laughing, laughing …

The older we get, the more people we know on the other side. Grandma might have had us here on Earth, but she had a crowd of revelers waiting for her arrival last night in Heaven. And of course, a kiss from Papa, and perhaps a quick, “What took you so long, Lee? I missed you.”

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I love British author Matt Haig for The Radleys, Dead Father’s Club, and now, The Humans, perhaps my favorite of his books—which is saying something. The Humans is about an alien who comes down to earth in the body of Professor Andrew Martin to erase the solving of a mathematical equation that could alter the course of human history.

However, the more time the alien spends among “the humans,” the more he becomes human. Instead of a book review, here are favorite quotes that trace the alien as he becomes more human but also quotes that speak to us as humans.

PS: Buy the damn book.

16130537“The manners and social customs too are a baffling enigma at first. The conversation topics are very rarely the things they want to be talking about, and I could write ninety-seven books on body shame and clothing etiquette before you would get even close to understanding them. Oh, and let’s not forget the Things They Do to Make Themselves Happy That Actually Make Them Miserable. This is an infinite list. It includes shopping, watching TV, taking the better job, getting the bigger house, writing a semiautobiographical novel, educating their young, making their skin look mildly less old, and harboring a vague desire to believe there might be meaning to it all.” (1)

“Everything in human life was a test. That was why they all looked so stressed out.” (33)

“I had read a lot of Isobel’s work and so I knew that the whole of human history was full of people who tried against the odds. Some succeeded, most failed, but that hadn’t stopped them. Whatever else you could say about these particular primates, they could be determined. And they could hope. Oh yes, they could hope.” (164)

“But what happened in Heaven? What did you do there? After a while, didn’t you crave flaws? Love and lust and misunderstandings, and maybe even a little violence to liven things up? Didn’t light need shade? Didn’t it?” (167)

“Love is scary because it pulls you in with an intense force, a supermassive black hole, which looks like nothing from the outside but from the inside challenges every reasonable thing you know. You lose yourself, like I lost myself, in the warmest of annihilations.” (187)

“In every human life there is a moment. A crisis. One that says, what I believe is wrong. It happens to everyone, the only difference being how that knowledge changes them. In most cases, it is simply a case of burying that knowledge and pretending it isn’t there. That is how humans grow old. That is ultimately what creases their faces and curves their backs and shrinks their mouths and ambitions. The weight of that denial. The stress of it. The single biggest act of bravery or madness anyone can do is the act of change.” (249)

“Happiness is possible for me now. It exists on the other side of hurt.” (250)

From the chapter “Advice for a Human:”

  • Don’t worry about your abilities. You have the ability to love. That is enough.
  • Sometimes, to be yourself you will have to forget yourself and become something else. Your character is not a fixed thing. You will sometimes have to move to keep up with it.
  • Tragedy is just comedy that hasn’t come to fruition. One day we will laught at this. We will laugh at everything.
  • Happiness is not out here. It is in there.
  • Don’t aim for perfection. Evolution, and life, only happen through mistakes.
  • Failure is a trick of the light.
  • A paradox: The things you don’t need to live—books, art, cinema, wine, and so on—are the thing you need to live.
  • You are lucky to be alive. Inhale and take in life’s wonders. Never take so much as a single petal of a single flower for granted.
  • You don’t have to be an academic. You don’t have to be anything. Don’t force it. Feel your way, and don’t stop feeling your way until something fits. Maybe nothing will. Maybe you are a road, not a destination.

“To experience beauty on Earth, you needed to experience pain and to know mortality. That is why so much that is beautiful on this planet has to do with time passing and the Earth turning. Which might also explain why to look at such natural beauty was to also feel sadness and a craving for a life unlived.” (271)

“If you came to Earth looking for logical sense, you were missing the point. You were missing a lot of things.” (278)

An endnote from Matt Haig:
“This is why I became a writer. I discovered that words and stories provided maps of sorts, ways of finding your way back to yourself. I truly believe in the power of fiction to save lives and minds.” (281)

Also, please watch this video Matt made entitled “How To Be A Writer,” because you’ll laugh until you cry. Especially if you’re a writer. Cheers.

In honor of Halloween, I offer you my newly released horror story, “How It Died,” published by Blank Fiction Magazine.

I hope everyone had a night of horrors. Maybe ghosts followed you home and dark creatures lingered in the corner of your eye. I hope you kept the pumpkin lit and danced around the fire. Halloween is the night when the dead come to visit. Were you ready to say hello?

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How It Died
by Sara Dobie Bauer
Published by Blank Fiction Magazine

My first and last November in Boston, I attended what Americans call Thanksgiving. My attendance was due to my romantic affiliation with Amy. I met her at the university where I was a graduate student and TA. She was also a graduate student, although of a different program. We met at one of those student mixers forced upon me by my advisor who insisted I “meet people.” Amy was the only woman present interested in mythology, and due to her high intelligence, we hit it off. I rarely hit if off with anyone.

I stood with a whiskey along the back wall of a living room crowded by family photos and semi-overweight family members. The men of Amy’s family sat in a half circle around the TV with a large tray between them, covered in salami-wrapped pretzels, potato chips and dip, and square-shaped orange crackers. Children ran in and out of the room, in and out, except one small, quiet little boy who knelt on the floor and pet the cat.

“John?” Amy arrived at my side. She was the only woman in my entire life that had ever called me John. Everyone else the world over called me Jonathan. However, due to her usage, the name spread. Her entire family called me John already, along with one drunken uncle who used the foul Johnny. “You doing okay?”

I nodded and looked cheerful.

She leaned up on her toes and whispered, “My sister thinks you’re a dream.”

I put my arm around her shoulders and kissed the side of her head. Amy was brilliant and petite. In heels, her blond head fit comfortingly beneath my chin. She had one of those short haircuts that made her look like a fairy and small hands that searched for me beneath bed sheets.

“Have you eaten?”

“I thought we were supposed to wait for the turkey.”

“Amy, sweetie.” We heard her mother’s voice from the kitchen. “Could you do the mashed potatoes? No lumps. You know the kids hate lumps.”

“Yeah, mom.” She kissed the side of my jaw and winked before leaving me once again alone to consider the fat men in uniforms on the TV screen. I decided instead to watch the quiet child who toyed with the family cat.

The little boy had dark hair and brown eyes, the opposite of Amy. He resembled my own childhood photos. He wore a little red shirt and jeans with stocking feet. I marveled at his smallness. I was never around children anymore—easy to forget they existed at all. This boy was very small, skinny, with a large head, and he used his soft, child’s hands to pet the cat and whisper in its ear.

The cat was another story. She was massive, fat, and awful, with long, white fur and wicked green eyes. Cats always made me uncomfortable. I suspected they were forever planning something, murder perhaps. How easy it would be for them to scratch out my throat as I slept. To think the foul creatures were once worshipped as gods, but they were a bit like God: feared and impossible to understand.

I watched the little boy coddle the cat. I listened to the sound of an electric beater in the kitchen, where Amy prepared lump-less mashed potatoes. The TV grew louder as cooking noise increased. Men yelled when a referee made an announcement inaudible over the sound of their outraged screams. I could hear my pulse beating in my brain. My head began to ache, so I focused on the child with the cat to stay calm. Amy had already told me cigarettes were forbidden at Thanksgiving; her mother would have cast me out like a leper.

The child stretched out on his stomach in front of the fat cat and rolled his little fingers into a tight fist. His mouth moved in soft whispers, and when he opened his hand, a shadow of darkness filled the cup of his open palm. He whispered some more and leaned closer to the cat until the cat opened its sharp-toothed mouth. They existed like that, together, perfectly still, until the shadow in the boy’s palm moved like a cloud of smoke toward the cat’s mouth and down its throat. Then, the boy touched the cat’s head happily and looked at me.

I almost dropped my drink when Amy touched my arm. “Dinner’s ready.”

(Things take a decidedly gruesome turn from here. Read the rest for a dollar at Blank Fiction Magazine. This issue also features a story from my spooky pal Tiffany Brown, so read, read … and scream! Happy Halloween!)

I don't like clowns.

I don’t like clowns.

Evil cat photo credit: Angels Dropping / Tumblr

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I’ve thought about giving up. No longer creating. No longer caring. It’s on these, the darkest days, that I end up at Perryville Prison or on a road trip to Prescott or, say, to a sober-living halfway house in downtown Phoenix. It’s on these darkest days that Gina’s Team has saved my life.

Gina’s Team was named for Gina Panetta, a young mother who died while serving time in an Arizona prison. In her memory, we actively promote education and self-sufficiency for incarcerated women and men in Arizona at no cost to the prisons.

My title at work is “Book Nerd,” and this title has perpetuated through my time with Gina’s Team. At first, it was a monthly book club at Perryville Prison. I am now expanding to start a book club for former inmates and recovering addicts in downtown Phoenix and also at Mingus Mountain Academy—a safe haven for troubled teenage girls.

One of my dark days occurred last Wednesday, when I woke at 6 AM and knew I had to head to Prescott to judge a poetry slam at Mingus. My anxiety was off the charts, and I had trouble remembering how to dress myself. Then, we—Gina’s Team—arrived at Mingus, and the slam began.

One girl’s name was called (coincidentally, Sarah), and she covered her face. She ran up to us and said she couldn’t do it, couldn’t read in front of a hundred of her peers. She looked to me for some nod that would allow her to sit down and give up. Instead, I pulled her aside and said, “I’m terrified to be here today. I’d much rather be under my bed, but I got up on that stage earlier. You can, too. Now, go read.”

skype-stay-together-ad-two-girls-huggingShe did. An excerpt from Sarah’s piece, written for the founders of Mingus, Bill and Pauline: “I didn’t care about my life, and I wanted to die. I fought every day and held in my pain. I was stuck on alcohol and self harm habits. I hit rock bottom, then one day, a staff sat me down to tell me the story of Bill and Pauline. I didn’t want to accept that someone once cared about girls lonely and scared.”

Sarah won third place. I have her judging numbers on the wall in my office as a reminder of that day, and I like to think Sarah looks at her third place certificate and thinks of Gina’s Team. I hope we did something for her that day.

Gina’s Team has had a huge effect on my life. I’ve met beautiful, broken women who I have helped to heal—at least a wound or two. Now, we’re expanding, reaching out to more women, more volunteers. So now, I need something from you.

Behind the scenes is a team of web masters, volunteer accountants, organizers … you name it, someone is doing it. The bad news: one of our computers just died. We are in desperate need of a new Mac, so we’ve started a GoFundMe campaign. In order to continue serving women at Perryville and young girls like Sarah at Mingus, we need efficient access to technology. Please consider giving just five bucks, ten bucks, something.

When I have my darkest days, Gina’s Team pulls me from my shell and shoves me into situations that should be scary. Instead, my experiences with Gina’s Team have left me enlivened and hopeful for the future. I will not give up, no matter my personal darkness, because there are women who need me. Gina’s Team won’t give up either. Please help us in our continued mission to change lives for the better.

Head to GoFundMe now and donate, and please spread the need to your friends, family, and social media circle. Thank you!

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